Narrative follows every player in the league. For Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, the overriding negative narrative is that he is not a quarterback who handles pressure particularly well. Be it the pressure of bright lights on prime time television or the pressure of a 265-pound defensive end barreling down on him, Cousins has earned a reputation as a quarterback who crumbles when the going gets tough.
The narrative bears some truth in both senses. While Cousins is still a plenty capable starting quarterback — in fact, a verifiably good one — it is tough to make the case that he does not falter when the spotlight is on. For now, though, let us focus on Cousins’ play under the physical sense of pressure: incoming pass-rushers.
The pressure-related duality of Cousins is not a matter of subjectivity. Per Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, Cousins has consistently shown a discrepancy between his play under pressure and play without pressure that is wider than league-average, almost robotically so. Year-in, year-out, Cousins is slightly below-average under pressure while residing comfortably, though not remarkably, above-average versus no pressure.
One way to frame the data is that Cousins is not necessarily bad under pressure; he is just much worse than without pressure. Cousins hovered below-average (even if barely) versus pressure in three of five seasons and is on-average worse than league-average over his five years as a starter. A roughly minus-6% difference in DVOA is not damning, though.
His middling play versus pressure is not the lone issue. Rather, his non-pressure play is so consistent and quality that, by comparison, his play under pressure being average or slightly below feels especially damaging to his overall success. Cousins’ roughly minus-20% gap between his average difference of performance and the league’s average difference of performance is made up primarily by his plus-15% DVOA when operating without pressure, not his roughly minus-6% DVOA when operating under pressure.
That sentiment is also accentuated by Cousins’ lack of “wow” plays in general. There is no counterbalance of the extremes for his miscues. Cousins is always good for a solid seven- or eight-out-of-10 on a given play, but seldom does he provide those 10 out of 10 moments. On the other hand, some of Cousins’ misplays under pressure can be horrific.
Everyone reading this can all too clearly remember a handful of instances wherein Cousins looked like a deer in the headlights versus pressure and delivered a spectacularly catastrophic ball. And even if he does not do that all the time, those memories still stick out in our minds because of their overtness. Those plays are tough to forget whether you want to forget them or not.
Cousins’ performance against pressure is deeper than the numbers, too. It is not just that Cousins has a track record of being average or slightly below versus pressure, it is that the particular situations in which he can and can not handle pressure is as clear as any quarterback in the league.
In general, pressure plays can be binned into two categories: on-schedule with defenders closing in, or forced off-schedule. At least on film, Cousins is plenty capable in executing the former scenario, but the latter scenario leaves him completely lifeless. His issues under pressure are far more often a matter of creativity and mobility, not a matter of fortitude.
Take this play, for example. Cousins executes a seven-step drop from under center. Upon hitting the top of his drop, Cousins has room in front of him to hitch back up, but the area to either side of him is being squeezed. He must be able to slide up and angle his body such that the two nearby defenders do not disrupt his throwing motion — and that is exactly what he does. Cousins drifts ever so slightly to his left upon hitching up, only to then immediately shield himself from the defender on the left while getting the ball out. No. 8 takes the hit as the ball leaves his hand, delivering a nice pass to a wide-open Stefon Diggs. The throw itself here is nothing special, but Cousins proving to have the brass to maneuver a muddied pocket and get the ball out on time is important.
Cousins’ comfort in checking down comes in handy versus pressure, too. As should be the case for a good veteran quarterback, Cousins displays an excellent understanding for where his checkdowns are at any given point in a play, which helps him tremendously when he needs to deal with immediate pressure. In both plays above, Cousins deals with immediate pressure at the top of his drop by instinctively firing perfect passes to his checkdown options. Sure, neither are sexy plays, but the decent gains the offense was able to produce in these instances were far better than sacks or throwaways.
In the handful of plays above, Cousins knew where he could go with the ball and delivered it. The incoming pass-rushers did not phase him because he knew an open man was there. Cousins is a systematic quarterback, so the comfort of having the open receiver is all he needs to block out everything else.
When the openness of his receivers is not so clear and he can not get the ball out right away, however, things change. Cousins’ game deteriorates when he can not remain on-schedule. Whenever Cousins’ options versus pressure boil down to “run or scramble to help someone open,” his brain short circuits. He has neither the spontaneity nor the athletic tools to deal with pressure in that way.
Let’s wind back the clock with this clip from Cousin’s 2017 season in Washington. At about the same time Cousins finishes his three-step drop, Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence has freed himself up by cutting through to the interior of the offensive line.
Cousins drops his eyes and catches this fairly early on. He now knows he needs to do something. Shortly thereafter, he steps and peeks to his right, but realizes the area outside of his right tackle is occupied by a defensive linemen, leaving Cousins to look for another route. Rather than move somewhere, even if just to throw the ball away, Cousins then freezes in the pocket, allowing Lawrence to find his footing and earn the sack.
Cousins knew full well the pocket was broken and he needed to do something, yet he never seemed to find what that something was until it was much too late.
Perhaps more frustrating for Vikings fans are the plays like this one. The initial play-action concept is to no avail, which gives the Packers’ pass rush enough time to force Cousins out of the pocket. Once out of the pocket, the only threat to Cousins is the defender trailing him.
There is no defender crashing down on him from the front side of the play. In theory, Cousins should be able to extend this play a bit further toward the sideline. Cousins instead gives up on the scramble attempt almost instantly, opting to chuck the ball at his fullback’s feet to kill the play and move on. This play is not a disaster by any means, but Cousins had a chance to make a play and did not even somewhat entertain it. There is surely some value in Cousins consistently protecting the ball and being willing to live for the next down, but it can be exhausting to watch him throw away chances to make a play while under pressure.
At this stage in his career, it feels as there is no fixing this lack of creativity and mobility, either. Sometimes younger players with these same issues can develop out of it to some degree as they mature. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is a good example. Sure, he is no Russell Wilson now, but Ryan was once a horrific performer under pressure who developed a better sense of how to problem-solve when there was no clear answer for him. That change happened for Ryan gradually throughout his young career.
If that were also going to happen for Cousins, it would have by now. But it hasn’t. This just is who Cousins is.
Again, that is not to invalidate Cousins’ overall qualities or his many positive traits, but rather to maintain focus on where and when we should expect Cousins to perform. He is a perfectly mediocre player under pressure, yet still good enough elsewhere to regularly propel his teams to nine-plus wins. Assuming the offensive line does not collapse or become riddled with injuries, Cousins should be able to guide the Vikings offense to another top-10ish finish through his quality non-pressure play.